The worst present I ever got was from my grandmother, Nana Sweeney, when I was eleven years old. She was my mother’s mother and she gave me Rosary Beads. I’d just got a set of dominoes from my parents, which was bad enough, but the beads were just insulting. Of course, this happened before I’d learned the finer points of social tact, and so when Nana Sweeney handed me this ugly girl’s thing, this jewelry, all of the magic of Christmas crumbled around me and I began to cry. I think I broke her fragile little heart when I did that.
I might have gone too far when I threw the box into the fire-luckily my Dad was on hand with the tongs-but I definitely crossed the line when I screamed back “I hate you!” to Nana Sweeney’s poor grey face as I ran bawling up the stairs. She was never the same towards me again.
“Problem child”; that’s what they called me. Those two words floated up the stairs and into my room as I lay under the covers hugging my tear soaked pillow. I was angry more than anything. She’s so stupid, I shouted inside my head. So stupid! But I wanted to call her something else, something worse. The words swam about underneath, but never broached the surface. Something stopped me, some fear of my parents or of God Himself. Bitch! I wanted to scream it. You stupid bitch! But I never did.
“Problem child”; spoken in serious tones, but only during the quiet parts between the shouting. I couldn’t understand it, really. I meant well most of the time, things just had a way of disintegrating around me; like the time I tried to make breakfast in bed for my parents. They didn’t eat it, even after Dad had put out the fire. I didn’t mind too much being grounded for that, I probably deserved it after all. It was only when my Mam emptied the two plates of perfectly good fried egg into the bin that I became upset. They didn’t even let me explain that it was for them.
A couple of days after Christmas my mother called me over to have a “talk”. I’d been playing with the dominoes on the stairs. They weren’t that bad a toy after all, if you set them up right. On the staircase was best. It was two dominoes per stair. Three-point-two inches between each one. I measured it with my ruler.
I loved that first fragile domino. There was so much responsibility on its shoulders. Just the tiniest movement would send it rattling into all of its brothers. I’d position everything perfectly and then jump around beside them so that even I didn’t know when they’d go. Sometimes all it took was the most innocent noise to make it fall. I imagined it struggling to remain upright, trying desperately not let the others down. It was the most important one and if it could stay standing, then the rest would too. But it never did. And they could do serious damage to any toy soldiers straying near the end of the stairs.
At this point I’d already been made apologize to Nana Sweeney, and now my Mam wanted to explain the Rosary beads. She told me that for each small bead on the chain you were supposed to say one full Hail Mary, and for each large bead you were supposed to say an Our Father. There were many more small beads than big beads, and so I was glad; Hail Marys were much better than Our Fathers.
“Now, Michael, these beads are very special Holy things,” she said as she placed them over my head. “When you say the Rosary, you are talking directly to God Himself.”
I looked down at the beads draped around my neck, examining them properly for the first time. They really were quite pretty, after all. I took the dainty little cross in my hand and felt the smoothness of its wood. There was a tiny carving of Jesus that I hadn’t noticed before. I loved the way it was slightly blackened from the fire.
“And He really hears it?”
“Of course He does! It’s the prayer He likes best of all.” She smiled down at me. “And He will reward you with the Holy Spirit whenever you say it.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “But…does He not get bored? With loads of people saying the same stuff to Him over and over?”
“No, of course not! God doesn’t get bored, don’t talk silly.”
“Well if I had millions of people saying the same things to me every day and I had to listen, I would be bo-ored!” I took off the beads and threw them on the table, already looking for my football. “Yeah, I’d sure hate to be God.”
She grounded me for three days for saying that. I didn’t even know what I’d done wrong, not until later. There was a fight in the kitchen when my Dad came home. It was night-time so they thought I was asleep. He was saying I shouldn’t be grounded, that I was a child and that I “didn’t understand.” She kept talking about my soul. Someone slammed the front door after a while, and left up the gravel driveway with heavy steps. Afterwards I could hear quiet sobbing coming from the kitchen. I knew it had to be my Mam, but she didn’t sound right; she sounded just like a child. I lay there with my head buried under the pillow and asked God to make her stop. Then I apologised for what I’d said earlier. The shouting was my fault, after all.
I hated when people told me I “wouldn’t understand.” It made me want to kick them in the knee. I usually kept annoying them until they explained it to me, whatever it was. Most of the time it was very boring stuff about the government or something, but I always stayed listening until they were finished, and I always nodded at the end to let them know I’d understood every word, even when I hadn’t. My Dad always laughed when I nodded at the end, and even my Mam did too, sometimes, though you could tell she was trying not to.
I said the Rosary the next day to try it out. It took me twenty-two minutes exactly, and I was praying as fast as I could. I assumed I’d done it wrong because nothing happened afterwards; I didn’t feel any Holier or anything. It wasn’t my fault though, because during the last few prayers my Mam kept shouting up to come to dinner. She made me drop the beads, and I lost my place. I had to guess how many more Hail Marys to say, but I said an extra one at the end, just to be sure.
For a New Years Resolution I promised to be good all of the time. I did it for my parents and, somehow, it worked. Whenever I thought of something fun to do I just thought about whether they would like it or not, and if not, I played something else. It was hard work, but it was worth it. I did nothing wrong for three whole months, and Mam started calling me her “good little boy.” I liked it most of the time, but not when she rubbed my head and messed up my hair.
After a while I was told that it was nearly Lent and that I had to give something up for forty days as a sacrifice. “Sweets and fizzy drinks,” my Mam suggested, “and promise to say extra prayers every night.” My Dad was giving up booze, or at least that’s what he shouted one night between bottles, each one his last and a toast to “Almighty Jesus”. I didn’t know what my Mam was going without, although once I heard her say, “I wish I could give you up,” to Dad under her breath. I thought that was very funny, and she smiled at me as I laughed and then shooed me out of the room.
I decided to give up bad words. I was notorious in the neighborhood for my swearing. Eff this, effing that, “b”-words, “c”-words, “s” -words; I knew them all, and not the full meaning of any of them. I fired them around the streets of Dublin like bullets. No-one outside my own family was safe, well, none of the children anyway. There was a group of kids that followed me around and laughed at whatever I said, even at stuff I didn’t mean to be funny. I didn’t like that, when I said something serious and they laughed anyway. It hurt deep down. I enjoyed having them around though. It was great to walk somewhere and know that people would follow. I called them my Disciples, but I never let my mother hear that.
I was determined to continue my good behavior for my parent’s sake; there had been no shouting for a while. Even though they weren’t aware of my swearing, it was the only thing that might still cause trouble. So, two days before Lent I tested myself. I woke up early and made an oath not to swear at all that day. It lasted about four hours. After a full morning out with the Disciples-throwing pebbles at cars on the Malahide Road-I was stuttering and biting my tongue at every sentence. Eventually I exploded with a tirade of abuse much worse than usual. The kid I shouted at actually cried and the rest of us sang “Cheerio! Cheerio! Cheerio!” as he ran off home. It was great. There was no excuse for tears in the Disciples; we were men amongst boys.
But the relief! It was like not going to the toilet for ages and finally unleashing a crashing torrent; the best feeling in the world. It felt like I had a reservoir of bad words inside of me and if I tried to hold them all in, eventually the dam would burst. I had little chance to survive forty days. The way I saw it, my only option was to empty the reservoir before Lent began, to get the words out of my system altogether. So I came up with a Plan.
First I tried to find out the amount of curse-words I used each day. That was hard. I had to get my Disciples to help, but none of them were especially smart for their age. It was frustrating when they kept losing count. Eventually the whole thing descended into a kind of game with me shouting random dirty words and the crowd of kids yelling out numbers and cheering. In the end I just made a guess at one hundred, mostly because it was a nice round number and easy to multiply.
I was the best in my class at multiplication. We had a test and I got 100%; every answer right. The teacher didn’t believe me though; she thought that I’d cheated. She rang my parents and they had to come in to school for a meeting. My mother wanted to punish me. She and Mrs McMahon, the teacher, were part of the same church group. My Dad didn’t let them though, he was great. He made the teacher give me another test and I got 100% in that too. The next day Mrs McMahon moved me to the back of the class and said “I don’t want to hear from you at all today,” so I just went to sleep.
I made a list of all of the dirty words that I knew. There were seven. Forty days multiplied by one hundred words was four thousand so I knew I had to say four thousand swear words altogether, but finding out how many to say of each curse was more difficult. We hadn’t done division yet. My friend Paul had an older brother in big school so I told him about the plan and he advised me to say each word five hundred times. He said the idea was “bloody hilarious”. He even taught me another bad word that I hadn’t heard before. I started using it immediately.
The day before the start of Lent was pancake Tuesday. I was being so good lately that my Mam let me flip one all by myself. The frying pan was too big though and I dropped the pancake onto the kitchen floor and just stood there looking down at it, almost crying. I hated to waste food; it made me think of black kids with their flies and stuck together eyes. She said it was all right though, and that she was proud of me for trying. She cleaned it off and we ate it together and it was tasty after all. Nana Sweeney didn’t have any. She had started her Lenten Vow a week early and was fasting from nice tasting foods, amongst other things. My Dad didn’t have any either. He was in front of the TV in the other room with a few bottles of beer. Only a few though, he had work in the morning.
After pancakes I went to my room to execute the plan. I brought a glass of water with me in case I got thirsty after the first couple of thousand curses, and before starting I fetched one thing out of my special drawer; the set of Rosary Beads.
His Mam had said that the beads weren’t really necessary to say the Rosary, that they were just a tool to help count the prayers. I dug them out and sat on my bed. There were fifty small beads. Paul’s brother told me I needed to say each curse ten times for every small bead on the Rosary and then I would be done. Easy. It was past my bedtime, so I put on my pajamas first and then began.
It took ages, almost as long as the Rosary itself. Near the end I was getting sleepy and the beads were slipping through my fingers. It was strangely soothing, though. When I got into it the chant became automatic, and the words themselves seemed to lose all meaning. That little thrill I always felt when I swore seemed to fade a little with every curse. Swear-words were just words after all, I realised. The plan was working.
I was finishing off my last swear-word when Nana Sweeney walked in on me and broke my concentration. She must have been wondering why my light was on when I was supposed to be asleep. The way I was sitting, I was facing the door and had the Rosary held up in front of my face as I fingered the beads. I was in such a trance that I’d closed my eyes, so I didn’t even see her come in. She should really have knocked.
“…Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch-” I said.
“Michael!” she screamed.
My eyes shot open and I dropped the beads on to the floor, shocked so that I nearly fell off the bed. When I’d righted myself I saw her standing in the doorway, mouth agape and eyes wide. I could see her lips moving, but there was no sound coming out. Whether she thought I was insulting her or God, or the Virgin Mary Herself, it didn’t matter. She was more upset than ever before.
Feet thundered on the stairs.
“What’s going on up here?”
Nana Sweeney was still staring at me and her eyes were dark. She raised a shaking finger and whispered in a sick wheezing voice as she pointed at me.
She said it again, louder, “Devil-child!”
My Mam stormed over and grabbed my arm so tight it hurt. Her voice was a shout, and her face was scary.
“What d’you do? What d’you do this time?”
She squeezed my arm tighter so that my arm bruised green and yellow afterwards. Tears welled in my eyes. I tried to explain everything; that I was trying to be good, that I was doing it for her and Dad to stop the fights, but my brain wouldn’t work properly, nor my mouth. In the end I just sat on the bed, staring up at my mother’s grim face as tears dribbled down my cheeks.
Then my Dad came up beside her, and tried to soothe her. He put his hand on her shoulder and everything. He was great.
“Mary, please. It’s all right, calm down. We don’t even know what happened here.”
“Will you just look at her? He must have done something! Something terrible.”
“It’s probably nothing,” my Dad said, before whispering. “You know your mother, she sees the Devil in her soup for Chrissake.”
It was then that it happened.
First, Nana Sweeney fainted. That was weird, her legs just sort of crumpled beneath her and it made a sound like when you throw a pair of jeans on the floor. Then my Mam screamed.
“O my God!”
She turned quickly to go to help Nana, but she must have forgotten that she had a hold of my arm. She spun round and let go. I was sitting on the end of the bed, and it was enough to throw me. I went over head first, and backwards. It wasn’t really her fault though. She just forgot.
I caught a glimpse of my Dad as I fell; his eyes fixed, mouth open, arms extending to catch me. I tried to reach for him too. Then I rotated and his face disappeared.
I had a chest of drawers beside my bed, and the bottom drawer was open. It was made of some kind of hardwood, and the corners were sharp. This was the special drawer where I had kept my Rosary beads. It was almost on the floor so my Mam never used it. She thought it was empty. I kept some old t-shirts in there anyway to cover everything up in case she glanced in. That was where I kept all the stupid little things that I liked, like the cartoons my Dad cut out of the paper for me every week, and the interesting stones that I found when they went to the beach, and my old teddy that I had to hide so my Mam didn’t throw out, and the will that I’d written leaving my toys and stuff to the Disciples because we’d all promised to, and the huge dead bee that I found on the kitchen windowsill until it started to frighten me at night and I had to throw it out the window.
My head landed an inch from the drawer’s hardwood corner. The room was carpeted so it didn’t hurt that bad, but everything went kind of blurry anyway. I stared up at my parents’ open-mouthed faces. They towered above me.
Dad turned to Mam then, and his expression changed entirely. Suddenly he seemed huge, much bigger than her, bigger than the room itself, and loud like a machine; like that empty cargo train that thundered past the school at break time, just on the other side of the tall wire fence.
“You stupid bitch!” he said, and then he hit her.
The slap was piercing. The sound seemed to reverberate around the room for long afterwards, echoing and reminding, shaking the walls of the house like an earthquake in the air. I gasped and felt sick all of a sudden, but still I watched in silence.
She was knocked over and lay above me on the bed, holding her face in her hands. The red hand print didn’t fade for hours. She made no sound. My Dad was stunned more than anything. He stood there for what seemed like ages, just staring down at her, saying nothing. He kept glancing down at his right hand, as if the hand itself was to blame, as if it was not a part of his own body, and he could be angry at it for what it had done, and punish it as it deserved to be.
For some reason he turned off the light as he left, and so the last image I had of him for several weeks was his darkened silhouette as he stepped over my fainted grandmother in the doorway.
Nothing happened for a very long time. I lay there flat out on the floor beside my bed listening to my mother’s sniffling breath in the dark and to Nana Sweeney’s even breathing behind it. I was waiting for something to happen. I’d landed on top of the Rosary beads and could feel them digging into my back, so I took them out and held them in shaking hands, fingering the shape of the little Christ figure that I’d blackened in the fire. I spoke to Him then and apologized for the fire, amongst other things. I lay there feet from my mother and grandmother, the three of us fallen bodies; a family of dominoes knocked down by one another and held to the floor without giant hands to pick us up. I lay there and remembered that first fragile domino, how it was always destined to fall, and how unfair and cruel that was. I lay there and thought about all of the force that must be upon it still, even after it had fallen; how it was now lying on top of all of its brothers, and how none of them could get up until it did first. And how hard that must be; to get up first. I lay there listening to my mother’s breathing for a long time, until I had to stretch open my eyes wide and painful to stop from falling asleep. I lay there and said the Rosary into the darkness and prayed for God to forgive me.
But I was careful not to make a sound.